Tag Archives: meaningoflife

Ambitious without an Ambition

My best friend in 1st grade was the first person who ever told me I was the most ambitious person she knew. As a kid this was easy because most people I knew weren’t very ambitious. My parents were so swamped with work they were hands off raising me, so maybe my Asianness sensed the power vacuum and stepped up so that I effectively tiger-mommed myself. (My team has called me a tiger CEO, which is maybe not entirely flattering. For example, during a team meeting I said, “Hitting this revenue target would be a B+, which is an Asian F.”)

As a kid if I underperformed my expectations, friends would try to comfort me, “You did way better than most.” This type of thinking was alien to me because I held myself to a higher standard than others. Should I compare myself to a girl born in Sudan in the 13th century and congratulate myself for being literate? Of course not- it’d be a miserable failure if I were illiterate and I should compare myself only to people who have my privileges, and I unflinchingly admitted that I sucked compared to Einstein, etc. (who didn’t have half my privileges!).

Growing up, ambition was all I had, and all I understood. I liked proving I was the best. Demoralizing friends during casual games delighted me. Once I challenged my cofounder to photograph Dustin and forced our team to vote on which anonymized photos were better. Afterwards I rubbed in my victory a lot, because, although Jeremy did the camera settings for me (“Nancy, your photo isn’t even in focus”), I was 1) president of the photography club in high school, 2) a classically trained graphic artist, and 3) generally the best at everything. I was only satisfied after he verified, “You’ve crushed my spirit.” I still get competitive about everything from how fast I am at email (I send 400 emails a week within 1 hour of receiving them) to how much Lynn loves me relative to her husband (“You don’t love me more? But you’ve known me longer”).

Ambition as my primary motivator started running out of fuel around when I started considering what my wikipedia article would read while googling myself from my deathbed. (At this time, my mom was on what I hadn’t acknowledged to be her actual deathbed (My mother does not have anything remotely resembling a wikipedia article).) I modeled my deathbed wikipedia article with the most optimistic fit springing from current data, “HFT billionaire, MIT philanthropist, personal history includes leaving at the altar Justin Bieber and Peeta Mellark.”

I noticed I didn’t feel excited by this forecast. Thus was the hallmark of a bad plan: both unlikely to happen, and undesirable to happen.

This feeling was like sighting an iceberg in the horizon. I continued charging towards the South Pole, plowing through the ice, but glanced over every once in a while- had the feeling maybe gotten imperceptibly bigger? I brushed away the suspicion of lostness because near the pole all my compasses point due South- if you blindly follow ambition, direction is meaningless. For most of my life ambition was all I had. It was all I needed. It had taken me far, and it was always there. (I can be sharkish in my inability to not keep pushing. If my life were an epic poem, my fatal flaws would include my drive.)) What would I do if ambition stopped telling me how to go?

I left HFT. I read and I wrote. I walked the earth. My world was Apptimizes all the way down. I built my team. I thought about things you wouldn’t think about unless you were fixated on specific goals that are unusual and hard.

One day I was pondering the 7 deadly sins and thought, “I grapple with few of these. Lust? As if.” I decided I could write a better religion than the Bible and wrote my own version of deadly sins with corresponding virtues:

1. long term thinking vs impatience/ short sightedness
2. curiosity/ learning vs mental laziness
3. agency/ courage vs fear/ passivity
4. sincerity vs dishonesty
5. empathy/ compassion vs cruelty
6. love for something greater than oneself vs selfishness
7. commitment/ passion vs indifference

As I was wordsmithing my list (I never finished that project), I realized I had another thing that motivated me outside of “ambition:” Nancy’s virtue #6: love for something greater than me. For one thing, I loved my team. I learned the power of teams after high school, but I also recognized that the point of Apptimize was not to provide a cozy haven for us to live happily ever after. The point was the users. They’re the thing greater than myself or my team, the ones we must love.

I admit love for users was not natural. In HFT I never had users or clients- we traded our own money because it was all proprietary. I quickly discovered users can be annoying. They are silent, and then they ask something but it’s unclear if they really mean that thing. You try to help but they don’t listen and then you have to find another way to help and suppress the urge to point out if they’d just listened the first time it would’ve been much better for everyone.

I was unkind to our first users. I feel sorry for our early cohort and am amazed by the ones who stuck with us. I was like the crotchety, unfeeling businessman who reluctantly gets won over by exuberant wise child despite repeatedly trying to abandon her to a maid or an intelligent family dog (don’t remember if this is all the same movie, whatever). I thought I knew everything and that it was somehow all about me, but I realized when I don’t listen to our customers my decisions are confused and myopic. When I listen to them I learn so much. My users are the smart ones and I have to pay obsessive attention to everything they say and do.

The instant we had a user tell us they discovered a valuable insight, with the extra exclamation point in their email conveying excitement, I saw that customer success is what it’s all about. No matter how frustrating and exhausting, we’re nothing without our users. The smallest sign of excitement or happiness from them makes my day.

I stopped thinking about my own achievements or my team achievements and started thinking about our users’ achievements. Instead of how much more badass I would be, I thought about how much more badass our users would be. Instead of being ambitious for me or my team, I am ambitious for our users. Instead of my wikipedia article saying anything about me taking over the world, I think of how our users’ wikipedia articles say they took over the world, and it won’t mention Apptimize because our users do it on their own and we’re just one of the ways they figured out how to kick more ass.

Everyone on our team from sales to engineering has woken up at 6am and stayed up till midnight to take customer calls and push new builds. Once we accidentally forwarded an internal support discussion to users and were proud of not being in the least embarrassed by our casual thread- in fact we were secretly going the extra mile to make sure everything would work swimmingly. My team has worked on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Saturdays (while calling it vacation)- not for the team- but to keep our promises to our users. That’s love. That’s commitment. That’s the right kind of ambition. That’s my religion.

I’m excited for 2015 because I can’t wait to figure out how to help our users accomplish even more this year. In case you want to try out some new apps for 2015, here are some Apptimize customers who kick ass (Maybe Apptimize is installed on your mobile device right now! (If you use one of these apps and say, “I summon the spirit of Apptimize,” 3 times I’ll jump out of your phone and tell you to stop goofing off and get to work!)):

Strava: Top 10, running and biking
Omvana: #1 meditation
Runtastic: #1 fitness in 80+ countries

Vevo: #1 premium music videos
Rhapsody: Top 10

Glassdoor: Top 10 jobs postings and reviews
eToro: Top 10 social trading

Yik Yak: Top 10 anonymous social media
Glide: Top 10 video texting
Flipagram: #1 free app in 80+ countries, make video stories

cars.com: Search 4 million cars
Autotrader: Buy and sell your car
HotelTonight: Book a hotel instantly on your phone

Rakuten: World’s #7 largest e-commerce company
ReTale/ KaufDA: Weekly offers
OLX: Top 10 in >100 countries, classifieds
Stubhub: #1 ticket marketplace

Mother’s Day

I never asked her to work nights in a restaurant and go to school during the day. I never asked her to prepare my favorite fruits and vegetables with my favorite dipping sauces as my daily snack. I never asked her to turn down her big business opportunity to stay at home with me.

The debt you can never repay, the debt that makes you owe more than you can ever accomplish in your entire life, is the debt you owe for the stuff you never asked for. I never asked my mother to love me, or to give birth to me, and now I owe a debt impossible to repay.

How do you pay back that kind of love? Is it one of those divine conundrums where everything’s impossible except through grace?

Luckily, my mother told me how to pay it back. She said, “You simply owe it to me to become as amazing as you can. Also, promise me you’ll break up with that boy.”

I didn’t listen to my mother in many things, and I can never deserve everything I have, but I’m really trying to earn back my debt by making something good out of my life. It’s impossible to be worthy, but you try to be a better person.

I want to try as hard as I can because I owe a million debts like that. It’s impossible to repay all the innovators who birthed our amazing world, the scientists and artists. We didn’t ask for it and we can never deserve it- the past asks things of the future, but not the other way around. We just have to try our hardest. We pass on our best attempt so that when our children inherit our earth we have some right to ask them to make something even better.

To all the moms whose only wish is we do something good with the gifts we got without asking, happy mother’s day.

hua mom and dad!

The and My Future

“Why are you taking the 101? Can’t you see your iPhone 5 is lying to you? Its map was wrong in Santa Clara and it’s wrong here.”
“The 101 is the 280’s uglier sister. Clearly Steve jobs wanted us to take this route. Anyway now we can have a nice talk where you advise me on my finances.”
It’s funny how I’m the financial expert amongst my non-trading friends even though my opinions are almost certainly things no financial advisor would recommend to anyone.

When I first joined GETCO, I introduced myself to a new employee saying, “GETCO is my first job after MIT,” and the closest person I had to a boss interjected, “And your last.” At the time I sincerely believed and hoped that this would be true. In 2007, the company had 30 traders across 4 offices. Each trader did whatever they decided was optimal in a market that bloomed with opportunity: it was like the wild wild west- so much fertile terrain waiting to be conquered by a few explorers, populated only by some occasionally annoying but generally innocuous natives. I loved it. I never had someone telling me what to do, or really even anyone questioning what I was working on. I didn’t think about the future after GETCO because who would ever want to leave? The business was exploding, we were at the forefront of technology, and if you hesitated to size up your coworkers would make increasingly loud chicken sounds.

4.5 years later, after Singapore I went straight to my NYC desk to clean it out, then to Chicago to resign. I and everyone assumed I was going to stay in HFT because I’m a “world class expert in HFT,” plus headhunters were busy setting up lunches with billionaires with ambitions regarding their nonexistent/proto/growing/declining HFT operations. I was advised not to sign anything till the noncompete was up so I participated in some fantastic handshakes and told everyone I’d see them after my noncompete was over.

I’m not good at vacation so I viewed this year as a rumspringa world tour- I just got back from New Zealand and am writing this while jetlagged, thinking about how my paid vacation will be up in 2.5 weeks. This year I zoomed my head out of focus to see what everyone else is looking at. Let me tell you: Other People are looking at some pretty crazy stuff. I met Verner Vinge and Ray Kurzweil at the Singularity Summit. Compared to these impassioned singularity people, I feel like an ape for mentally shrugging when they bring up existential risk and AI. Nevertheless, my main impression is it’s cool these people are contemplating and perhaps helping decide a vision of mankind as a species. Most people never think about that kind of thing, as individuals or as a species. What is the destiny of mankind? Who even asks this question? Shouldn’t we wander blindly towards our fates like all other species? Aren’t we just dominant, blessed by god to be gods among animals? Anyway, the Singularity Summit led me to go to Rationality camp. This post was originally about Rationality Camp but I guess I’ll write about that some other time (sorry to leave you as irrational as ever, although I can tell you that I made $280+ from poker, won a prize despite not being the most rational (Dilip had the most points in the whole camp but somehow lost his prize to me. Yes! Plus I beat him at some kind of augmented reality game, which victories are documented photographically)).

This year has been upside down: I’ve been paid to not work, spent more time in CA than NYC, and I realized I’m old- I think I’ve aged relative to my non-finance peers. I’m 27 and I’ve started finding younger people annoying. Those fools have no idea how lucky they are. At my age, people are suddenly so hard to impress. If I were starting a company at age 17 people would say, “Awesome.” Now everyone’s like, “Whatever.” Too old to be effortlessly impressive, too young to shove offending kids off my subway seat, I’m at an age when I don’t really notice anyone else’s age unless they bring it up, whereas for years I was conscious of even a year’s difference. Looking back at my childhood, the hours reading in the grass, the biking with friends, my main impression is that an idyllic childhood is a colossal waste of time. Yes, even the priceless hours bonding with family had diminishing returns, and no one really needs to read the collected works of anybody- very few writers have anything to say after their first real book.

Sometimes I see flashes of myself 10 years in the future, so clear it’s almost a memory. This year I started seeing what future Nancy would be if I kept going down the trading path, and I didn’t feel excited. In fact I felt bored. Because it’s basically the same as always, except I’d need increasingly larger sums to get the same level of stimulation. For someone who lives so much in the future, I hadn’t really thought about what I’d think about the future after (if) it already happened. When I’m 40 will I see my 20’s and 30’s the way I currently see my childhood- objectively successful by most measures but privately viewed by myself as largely a waste of time?

I feel ennui regarding the kind of stuff people are supposed to do in their late 20’s, early 30s: the house and marriage stuff. My mom was in constant turmoil over the fact that she was too sick to see me “settled” in my NYC apartment. Prior to NYC, she had “settled” me into all apartments I’d ever lived in. Perhaps out of a desire to do what I thought she’d want me to do, I went out and bought my first furniture since she forced me to buy my mattress 5 years ago when I first moved to Chicago and needed a non dorm issued mattress. I ended up buying a $5000 coffee table made from a single solid cross section of a gigantic tree. Maybe I thought my mom would rest assured in my competence if I showed her this coffee table and other furnitures, that I was a grown up and finally handling this kind of stuff. I think I even bought a house plant of some kind, which never would have occurred to me to do in my youth. Mom just wanted me to be happy, which might not be what I want for myself. Now that I know what it’s like to have the perfect set of plates, I never want to own plates again. That stuff is all at my dad’s house now, completely out of place with his ornate, plasticky furniture.

I think I might’ve reassessed my trajectory sooner if it weren’t for the parents’ cancers. Cancer put me in a mental state of martial law where I was single-mindedly attacking obstacles without considering the problems of philosophy- who cares about higher ambitions when it’s life or death?

Now I feel like there’s more pressure. Maybe this is true for us as a species too- just as we’re most successful, there’s the most danger. Humans have accomplished a lot relative to other animals so the universe is ours to lose, plus we have to decide the extent of our future ambition. Similarly, as a kid the difference between working a little and a lot was the difference between an A- and an A+, whereas now there’s so much at stake- it’s now the difference between losing money and making money.

I’m acutely aware of being the writer of not only my writing but also of my own life. It’s exciting and scary and writer’s block-inducing to decide the next act. But from my life there’s just one thing I ask: don’t tell me how it ends.

F*ck Death

Someone died on the trail while we were hiking up the White Mountains in New Hampshire. They were giving him CPR for ages while his daughters leaked tears on a log nearby. When he was clearly and truly irreparably dead, we hiked past and I saw his pale, hairy leg with a scrunched up sock and hiking boot peeking out from the foil sheet. Hikers who’d helped give CPR later remarked, “I could feel his ribs cracking underneath my hands.” It was a sobering incident although a few hours later I still made a joke about the hike being a death march due to my vibrams.

Death is gross and terrible. I told my dad we should get cryogenically frozen and he said he’d look into the paperwork- my good old dad. I feel immense guilt it never occurred to me to freeze Mom even though I knew freezing existed. I think I was in a state of denial about the likelihood of her death since she’d been getting better for a long time and got worse quite suddenly so my dumb brain didn’t weight the new information correctly. Dying, like, goes against her identity as a cool Mom, right? The brain doesn’t handle affronts to identity very well.

Dying is deeply disgusting. Picture ragged roadkill or other dead animals you’ve ever seen flopped over stiff and grimacing- that’s what people are like when they’re dead too. I’d like to imagine death as one peacefully drifting off, looking as though one were sweetly asleep, but death is not like that. Death is ugly and repulsive. Mom was probably seriously dying for a good 6 months or so and I wish I could erase all of that from my memory. Is it wrong that I wish I could have frozen her before her organs started to rot inside her still-breathing body? I don’t want to think about her like that- I didn’t then and I definitely don’t now. But I did, and I do. I think about her and her death all the time. I wanted it to stop, and although she’s dead now it hasn’t stopped for me because it still happened- Mom being dead never stops.

Although Mom believed in heaven and her church friends were always with her, she didn’t want to die. She wasn’t in peace; she was in pain. I feel bad we didn’t try everything. I could’ve done more research but I didn’t want to get closer to it. I wanted it to stop and leave, a weak and contemptible reaction that proves I’m shamefully unworthy of stuff, like being a great samurai, or being a good daughter.

If I found out I had incurable cancer, I wouldn’t get the haphazard treatment that weakens you everywhere while you suffer and stall in waiting rooms that reek of poison, everyone pathetically shuffling around, or sadly staring, or desensitized and businesslike, or just normal- pragmatically ignoring doom. If I had cancer, I’d go to sleep on an ice floe and float out into the Arctic among the icebergs and the sea lions like an old, useless Eskimo. I’d wander alone towards my ancestral graveyard like an elephant matriarch and collapse on my knees in a pit of ancient bones. (Years later a lion king will play in my rib cage.) Or maybe there’d be some project I could do like fix a nuclear reactor that’s too dangerous for healthy people to approach, although they probably have robots or something for that.

It doesn’t hurt anybody for us to get frozen and the main reason against it is because people will think you’re weird. Whatever- the “weird” ship sails whenever it sails. Now that Dad said he’d do the paperwork, the main deterrent for me to do it was actually the clangy jewelry you’re supposed to wear at all times that says to send you to Alcor so they can put you in your freezing pod or whatever. Does anyone know if medical people will still realize it’s medical information if I get a cuter version made? I don’t wear jewelry typically and the thought of going from bare to ugly jewelry horrifies me.

Friends, let’s all get frozen. That way when I wake up in 1000 years in my robot body you’ll all still be there and we can all battle the evil Galactic Empire together and learn to control our psychic powers and flirt with hot aliens.

I hate death and maybe that’s why I think about it a lot. Animals are almost lucky because they can just die like it’s nothing, like it’s supposed to happen, an instinct encoded in their DNA. Animals live and die and nothing they do can be Wrong- their wars and murders, suicides and unstoppable sex, their patricide and eating of their cubs are all All-Right. I wish I could die by letting my million spider offspring explode from and then feast on my delicious, bulbous torso. Or I could die by having my ferocious mate bite off my puny head after sex- whatever, it’s natural, everybody’s doing it, it gives meaning to life, it’s a stitch in the tapestry of the universe woven by the Fates, it’s a poem, it’s destiny.

But I don’t feel like an animal (I can’t rape or kill or psychotically eat my young). I don’t feel like death is natural for me or for any person. Is that feeling itself wrong and unnatural? Maybe that’s part of why (in addition to our need to explain and find patterns) humans have an instinct for religion, every culture comes up with their own brand of afterlife- it’s our human nature to deny death. If you believe in an afterlife or in reincarnation, you can avoid the gut knowledge that death is DEATH. I wish I could do that, be like Henry Ford and the many people who’ve found solace in reincarnation or in heaven. Even if there’s a Zen meditation out there where you inhale the sickness and death of this world and exhale acceptance, if I tried it, I’d choke.* Maybe I’d vomit and burst into tears. It’d be gross.

I wasn’t specially nice to Mom when she was on her deathbed. When Dad had cancer I promised I’d be nicer to him going forward, but I am not at all. I guess impending death just doesn’t make me feel nicer even though I wish it did and it’s supposed to. I wish I could be the type of person who was nicer to someone after considering we’re both going to die, but I’m not. My only hope is to try to grow into a nicer person period who’d be really nice to her parents and everyone else even if we never had to die.

Sorry I’m not enlightened. Looking at everyone who’s accepted death and thinks it can be beautiful and dignified, and everyone else who doesn’t think about it and lives life never knowing death until they, well, die, I’m sorry death hurts and repulses me. I wish I were like the others, that I could ignore it or think of an afterlife, but even the idea that it’s all a plan makes me feel terrible. My mom didn’t die throwing herself in front of a bus of school children. (I wish she had. (It’s hard to die well. Many people don’t.)) She died and suffered for nothing, like an animal, and I don’t find any meaning in it.

I’m probably just abnormal but I don’t think life OR death is for humans what it is for animals. Animals are born, they look adorable as babies, they stay adorable after they’re grown or they become terrifying/ disgusting/ delicious, they may or may not learn some things, they do some work to get their food and shelter, they eat and sleep, they do some work so they can reproduce, they do some work to raise their offspring or they don’t, they interact with other creatures, objects, or places, and then they die. I can’t live my life like that. I can’t be like an animal- I can’t live like one or die like one.

It’s one thing to be stoic and mature about something inevitable. Like when some injustice occurs and someone stronger enslaves you or your legs are gone so you have robot legs or your whole family starved to death in China, you don’t let that ruin your life: you are courageous and heroic by going on to regain freedom or win the Olympics or become a scientist and say, “Shit happens- I was branded sub-human, my legs are gone, and I’m an orphan. There’s no point in dwelling on it so I have to have a good attitude going forward and be amazing.” That’s awesome. But don’t tell this person that the world is better that these injustices occurred, that their lives are more meaningful now because of suffering, that it was all supposed to happen so people could be inspired by their challenges. That stuff shouldn’t happen and we should try to stop it if we can. That’s how I feel about death, about all injustice, all suffering. If it has to happen, then I’m going to be brave about it. But I’m not going to say the world is more beautiful because of ugliness.

For millennia people had other people as slaves. Babies would die left and right. Women would die in childbirth. Sickness and disease would have no solution and people would accept it as part of life because what else are you supposed to do? How else do you cope with it? (Well, you can solve it.) (Death is the one disease everyone suffers under and everyone copes with.) People would rape and pillage their neighbors or expose their unwanted babies on the mountains, stuff animals do, but humans stopped doing this stuff because we’re better than the animals. We stopped coping with diseases because we can cure them.

That’s the gift that we humans have over the animals. We can choose to be better. If there’s a choice between good and evil, between hope and despair, between progress and complacency, we can choose the light. We can choose life.




* Margaret Cho wrote, “there’s this Buddhist meditation where you breathe in the world’s suffering and breathe out compassion and I try to do it and choke.”